Val Lewton and Cat People
A Study of High-Quality Low-Budget Filmmaking
In 1942, the studio heads at RKO gave Val Lewton his first title to turn into a movie, Cat People. On a budget of $150,000 and with no-name actors, what could have become a display of sub-par special effects and bad makeup instead was turned into a taut, psychological drama by Lewton and his team.
Written by DeWitt Bodeen, and directed by Jacques Tourneur, Cat People follows the Lewton formula for which his other movies would become known: two scenes of implied, questionable horror, one scene of actual, graphic horror, cut, wrap, print. Lewton’s sense of terror dealt with the unseen and the unknown — the feeling of being followed, or the sense of being watched, rather than the blood and gore of slasher films, or the terrifying monsters of Universal Studios. Indeed the first half of Cat People could easily be mistaken for a relationship drama.
We are introduced to Irena (Simone Simon), an immigrant from Serbia, and Oliver (Kent Smith), the architect that meets her at the Central Park Zoo in front of the panther cage and decides to court her. By the time their first date ends, she has dramatically recounted cultural lore: the village she left behind was filled with Satanists who ran to the hills when King John brought Christianity to Serbia. Allegedly, there are still descendants of these Satanists who, provoked by anger or sex or jealousy, turn into giant panthers.
Irena believes that she may be one of these “cat people,” but Oliver assures her that the lore is poppycock and marries her. Fearing demonic transition, Irena refuses to kiss her husband, much less consummate the marriage, and Oliver, thinking that his wife is crazy, seeks advice from a psychiatrist (Tom Conway) as well as his co-worker, Alice (Jane Randolph). When Irena learns that Oliver is seeking counsel and emotional support from another woman, she begins to spy, and is piqued by jealousy.
It is during the third quarter of the movie that it launches into horror. Neither Oliver nor Alice believe that Irena can really turn into a cat. But why does Jane feel she is being stalked? Did the wind rattle the bushes, or was something there? Are the shadows in the indoor swimming area a giant cat, or a trick of the eye and reflections of the water? Moreover, Irena has the keys to the panther cage at the zoo — so if it is a cat, is it the zoo panther, or Irena?
Beyond the obvious plot, are the movie’s subtexts — Irena’s shame of sex and emotion brought on by the religion of her youth, further given life by Simone Simon’s cold, detached performance.
Cat People was lensed by Nicholas Musuranca, who, with Jacques Tourneur went on to make Out of the Past, a noir masterpiece. Like a great noir, the movie is as much about fog and shadows, sharp angles and high contrast black-and-white, as it is about the actual plot devices. Cat People is also about sound, be it the clicking of shoes on pavement or the echoing of screams in an indoor pool. Sound is cheap on a low budget, and John Cass, an A+ Foley artist working for RKO’s B-movie department, provides terrifying ambiance.
Of note: The luxurious apartment in which Irena lives was the mansion set constructed for Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Cat People cost $134,000 to make, and grossed $4 million, while Ambersons cost $850,000 and lost $620,000.